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From the Executive Director: An Asian American Heritage Month for Americans Only?

By May 24, 2024June 14th, 2024No Comments

David Inoue

In somewhat of a surprise, the Senate brought back the topic of immigration reform resurrecting the bipartisan immigration bill that died in February and once again this May. The bill called for increased enforcement at the border to arrest people who do not come in through established border crossings or as often derisively referred to as illegal immigration. Highlighted features include the ability of the president to declare a halt to nearly all immigration across the border if volumes reach a certain level and increased resources to pay for border enforcement.

To have this bill resurrected at the end of Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month for me is especially odious.

One of the first most egregious sleights against our Asian American community was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which expressly prohibited Chinese immigration from its passage in 1882 until its repeal in 1943 and effectively limited Chinese immigration until passage of the 1952 Immigration and Naturalization Act.

But there remained loopholes, or what would be called illegal immigration, which my own family exploited when my grandfather came to the United States as a paper son. He went on to serve during World War II under his assumed identity as Ching S. Look and later opened a restaurant under the same alias, Look Chop Suey. Yet, he was always Grandpa Moy to me.

In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act further opened the doors wider to immigration such that my father came from Japan, bachelor’s degree and a few years of work experience in hand, a very different experience from my grandfather and also what might be considered the right way. That same legislation that opened the doors to educated and professional immigrants also opened the United States to refugees, or asylum seekers, a group we hear so much about today and one that we are trying to reduce from entering in all the proposed policies coming out.

Even worse, there is a growing narrative of a new wave of Chinese immigration coming through the southern border. The House Committee on Homeland Security even held a hearing earlier this month entitled “Security Risk: The Unprecedented Surge in Chinese Illegal Immigration,” again with the irony of being during AANHPI Heritage Month.

We have already seen some policy results with the passage of a new Alien Land Law in Florida, just a few years after it had repealed the previous one from over a century ago. To date, 32 states and the United States Congress are considering over 150 different pieces of legislation that would restrict land ownership by foreign nationals from targeted countries.

The impact of these policies is to kneecap the ability of immigrants to thrive upon arrival to this country. My grandparents were relegated to a lifetime in heavy labor, first working in factories and later operating the restaurant until they could no longer. Land ownership was the one thing that offered them and others an opportunity to build wealth.

As a child, I recall walking down the block from the restaurant, often hearing the other store owners greeting my grandparents, not realizing until much later that part of why they seemed to be so “popular” was that they were also the landlords for many of those shop owners.

In many ways, as difficult a life as my grandparents lived, they also lived the American dream. All their children went on to top schools and opportunities that didn’t require them to work in laborious jobs.

At the beginning of May, President Joe Biden spoke at a fundraising event for his re-election campaign where he reportedly lauded our country’s immigration policies, particularly in comparison to Japan, which admittedly has a very restrictive policy. Unfortunately, rather than seeking to remain an ideal that might be able to criticize other restrictive nations, we are moving dangerously toward the Japanese model, rather than living up to the ideals of the Statue of Liberty.

It is becoming all too clear that we are no longer welcoming to the tired, poor nor the huddled masses.

David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.